On Thursday, October 22nd, an American freeskier from Telluride, Colorado named Gus Kenworthy announced to the world that he was gay through ESPN’s social media channels, website, and print magazine. It was a monumental announcement all across the globe as thousands of action sports fans were inspired by and proud of his declaration. However, in an era of unprecedented reach in which every single person with a laptop or mobile device has an opinion that can be heard, praise is usually accompanied by controversy. That controversy was borne by one of our own, a rider who is widely considered by many to be the greatest snowboarder who has ever lived, Terje Haakonsen. It’s no secret that Terje’s convictions—for good or bad—have never wavered and he is consistently unapologetic in his approach, which has fueled scathing criticisms of the International Olympic Committee and the Fédération Internationale dé Ski (FIS) regarding their governance of our sport in the Olympics. In fact, the latter instigated his 1998 boycott of the Winter Games in which he was the odds-on favorite to win men’s halfpipe in its introduction to The Games, which kickstarted a nearly two-decade-long rivalry between the IOC, the FIS and Haakon.
However, his outspokenness on Thursday differed from taking a crack at an organizing or governing body.
Terje took to Twitter hours after Gus’s announcement and tweeted, “no, @btoddrichards did this 20 years ago & isn’t all skiiers gay; i’m heterosexual #soSpesial.”
The ensuing firestorm immediately transformed Terje into a pariah and while his inclusion of Todd Richards’ handle in the tweet was not expected or condoned by Todd, he also received the lashes from a social media whipping that should’ve been correctly aimed at Haakon. We at SNOWBOARDER Magazine were watching this trainwreck careen across the internet all day Friday and through the weekend, firmly entrenched in the bunker of snowboard titles that didn’t want to go anywhere near it, until Terje emailed us on Sunday morning, stating that he wanted to go on the record to clarify a few things with more than 140 characters.
I Skyped Terje a few hours later and we spoke for about an hour. At first, I didn’t know what to make of it. I still kind of don’t. However, Terje wanted a chance to address it and we at least gave him that. On one hand, I can see one of the points that he is trying to make: That we should live in a world where coming out of the closet shouldn’t be as big of a deal as it is, and I fervently hope that one day in the near future that is indeed the case. But it’s not, and Twitter was not the right medium to try and get that point across. And it seems Terje understands that. On the other hand, he and I differed greatly during much of the conversation and growing up as a snowboarder on the East Coast who idolized Terje, our conversation was a very surreal experience for me. He knows that whatever he was trying to say or joke he was trying to make was not received well, but Terje is Terje and he is unfazed by the critics. Ironically, that’s what has made him so distinguished in our culture but also what is preventing him from any sympathy for his remarks. Regardless, it’s up to you to decide what our conversation is. The fact of the matter is that what Gus did helped change some negative perceptions in our industry and around the world and what Terje did helped us see that those negative perceptions in our industry have indeed changed. Ultimately, that is what I choose to take from all of this.
SNOWBOARDER: Do you like skiing?
Terje Haakonsen: I like some parts of skiing, yes. Downhill skiing and cross country skiing for getting around.
Do you like freeskiing?
I have nothing against it, but I don’t like the style.
Do you like gay people?
I like gay people because when we have gay people in our friend group they attract so many girls. Gay people are usually really good looking and they are really nice, but the girls get really bummed at the end of the night when they find out that they are gay and the girls are stuck with us.
Do you feel like the word “gay” is used in an inappropriate manner in our culture?
For sure. Our generation uses that word all the time. It’s just like an expression. It gets used in all kinds of situations.
Explain what happened for anyone that might be reading this that doesn’t know what we’re talking about.
Well, what do you want me to say to that? I tweeted a joke about a skier that came out of the closet and I wasn’t really impressed that someone being gay was actually news. I also forgot that the United States is one of the most homophobic countries in the world and action sports is a masculine industry. It’s brave that Gus came out but there are so many other human rights that are important. There are a lot of rights that gay people don’t have and that’s totally whack and I disagree with that. I think they should have equal rights. But at the same time, look at Sochi, Russia, where there are all these other human rights that I think are just as important as gay rights. I tweeted, “What’s the big news? Isn’t every skier gay?” but people didn’t get that joke. People probably don’t know that I have a skiing background and I work with a lot of skiers.
Did you mean it only as a joke?
Yeah, it’s a joke, but I’m not taking that back.
Well, it may not be a big deal to come out in many parts of Europe, but it’s a very big deal to come out in the United States because a lot of gay prejudice still exists. You have to know that.
I know, and I thought about that later, but I think that if you want to be as normal as everybody else, why do people every other month come out with a statement that they are gay?
Do you interact with anyone that is openly gay?
Yeah. My uncle is gay. A couple of snowboarders that are on my team are gay. I don’t interact with my uncle that much, though. He’s really old.
Has there been any backlash from your sponsors?
Not at all. I have some skier friends that were surprised though. Some people are thin-skinned; they can’t take a joke.
I don’t think Twitter is the best place to attempt a joke as a public figure these days, though Terje.
Yeah, for sure. I kind of knew that and sometimes stuff slips out and some people can’t handle it and some can.
What has been the reaction from the European media?
Actually, a ski magazine here in Norway was just like, “Do you have any comments?” My comments were just, “Yeah, obviously I can’t joke on Twitter” and the mainstream press wrote me up in the headlines as a homophobe, but that’s really typical of the Norwegian press.
Do you want to apologize?
I can apologize for not expressing myself in a more politically correct way, but it was nothing against Gus. It was more that the media made such a big deal. But I would say to him, “Hey man, why didn’t you do it right in front of Putin like Cheryl [Maas] did?” You know, she was really the first action sports athlete to come out. But, at the same time, Gus is a guy and it’s harder for a guy to come out. I know that. All the credit to him.
As a human being though, are you proud of Gus?
I don’t follow skiing and I don’t really know Gus.
But not as a skier, as a man announcing to the world that he is gay, are you proud of him?
Well, I can’t say that I am proud of him but I can say that I understand him because he is in a really homophobic country where they just look at things differently. It’s probably really hard for him. The guy has balls.
So you don’t want to apologize?
Well, I don’t feel like I went after Gus, and like I said, it’s nothing against him. I wrote him a tweet saying that it’s not about him, but that was like putting more gas on the fire.
I’m sure this piece is going to put a little more gas on the fire.
For sure. There are going to be more opinions and about it, but I just want to say that I work with a lot of skiers and I’ve been to gay weddings and I am not a homophobe. If people didn’t get my joke and they think I’m a fucking idiot for putting it on Twitter, that’s okay too. No worries. I also want to say that there are a lot more human rights issues aside from gay rights, and I probably fight for more human rights than most.
But when you defend your argument by saying, “I have been to a ton of gay weddings,” that’s like someone calling you a racist and defending it by saying, “No, because I have tons of black friends.”
Yeah, of course, but should I lie and say I haven’t been to a gay wedding?
No, I don’t think you should.
But that could backfire just because you gave that explanation.
That’s true. Do you feel like you learned a lesson? Are you going to joke about stuff on Twitter still?
Yeah, some things just have to be joked about, you know? There will probably be more ski jokes, but I’m not going to do any more gay jokes.
Why are you not going to formally apologize?
Well, I can’t apologize for something that I already wrote, but it was the meaning behind it. I think a lot of people misunderstood it, but should I apologize because I’m a bad writer or because I’m not really good at expressing myself on Twitter?
Okay. Lastly, anything you want to say to Gus?
I’m sorry that it was him. It could have been anybody, you know? And he knows it. Obviously it’s not against him. All the best for him that he can ride with pride, but for me, I don’t judge people based on where their heart wants to go.